Hubert Burda Media

To Market, To Market

Typecast by an image built on sporadic troubles, many miss out on a Guatemala that is dazzlingly rich in culture, colour and effortless charisma — but not Anisha Shah

Guatemala may not seem an obvious destination for a luxury-loving female, but it rewards beyond all expectation. Mother Nature has blessed it with mist-capped highlands with 37 mighty volcanoes, lush forest, epic lakes, rolling plains, secluded beaches, remote villages, mestizos and a vibrant Mayan culture, all within its petite circumference. But Guatemalan markets are the country’s true natural wealth; an onslaught of telling culture.
On foot, about to enter the most highly anticipated sector of my trip, I reject security and dismiss company. Armed only with instinct and an innate willingness to meet the Mayan tribes’ people, off I set into Central America’s largest native market, where 95 percent of the population is indigenous.
The town of Chichicastenango (or “Chichi”), just 140km north-west of Guatemala City, boasts arguably the world’s most authentic market that spans almost an entire town. An hour in, I’m more than a little lost. Carts, sacks and boxes whiz past in a chaotic choreographed dance. Somehow, each knows its place in this narrowest of alleyways.
Deep within the throbbing Latin heart, the last bastions of ancient Mayan tribes play out their lives before me. Psychedelic flowers, woven onto textile tops, fuse with ornate embroidery skirts — each style representing a specific ethnic Mayan tribe, mainly the Quiché. Women vigorously pat stone-ground tortillas in the sound of a standing ovation. Bold red bows adorn old women’s hairstyles of upturned plaits. On the ground, babies with soiled faces suck on mango slices under splintered tables in the shade. Elderly stall-keepers doze off on rickety plastic chairs, straight out of the pages of a history book.
I realise the Mayans live an unfettered life and that I’ve made this pilgrimage to be amidst the epicentre of their world.
As famous as Chichi is, is as unknown as its neighbouring Almolonga, which casts itself as the “Vegetable Basket of the Americas”. The village trade retains my fascination for an entire morning. Beguiling in its frenetic pace, work halts for nothing as blood, sweat and tears are drawn before my eyes. Meander through the bodies in the open dusty square and brush past elderly women, doubled over to transport boxed vegetables on their shoulders. Beads of sweat roll off their foreheads in laborious thuds to the ground. The sounds are a wild rumpus of clanging metal, yelling, directing and bartering quarrels, interrupted only by the exchange of notes. Almolonga screams the steely determination to survive.
Close by is one of the country’s most breathtaking and famous landmarks. The iconic San Andrés Xecul Catholic church is shrouded in mystery, with unknown origins, date-stamped only from 1900. The sight is one of the most famous of Guatemala. Painted a cat’s-eye yellow and adorned in Mayan, Christian and agricultural images, the facade is a picture of enlightenment. Situated on a busy market square, the sounds are as electrifying as the sights; short, sharp strokes of a street barber’s razor, chatter of Mayan people lining the roads with baskets of goods, cars honking and revving as they squeeze through.
All this is a huge contrast to the first few days I spend in Unesco-designated Spanish colonial Antigua, which basks in the shadows of three volcanoes. Guatemala’s former capital is a majestic landscape of Colonial Baroque churches, crumbling facades (earthquake legacies) and ruins. Being in Antigua is like being on a film set with its surreal beauty. It’s a world of colourful walls, flanked by cobblestones and wrought-iron balcony-clad alleyways, where rays of light and shade compete for space. Some streets are utterly silent. I can imagine it as the backdrop to a Latin American Western movie. But turn a corner and you can find yourself in the throngs of a market where the abundance of wares is as spellbinding as the controlled frenzy of the operation.
Though Antigua’s market caters more for tourists, the handicrafts are authentic and of good quality. And you simply can’t help but take photographs of the traditional Mayan ladies in elaborate headdresses and punchy prints, displaced here from across the country.
Filled with elaborate boutique hotel conversions, Antigua is a tourist magnet. But if — like me — you rise at dawn, you’ll find that people are sparse in the early hours. At this time, two-table coffee houses are still being set up and only old men with sun-worn wrinkled faces ride by on bicycles, beaming as they sing.
Just a couple of hours away by road is Lago de Atitlán, a stunning rival to Italy’s Lake Como set against a backdrop of emerald green volcanic terrain. I put up at the most luxurious residence, Casa Palopó, a boutique villa built into a sheer cliff-side. Floor-to-ceiling windows, an open-face lounge terrace and open-air restaurant give way to exasperatingly scenic volcanic views, perfectly framed like a painting.
At dawn, I leave aboard a private Lancha motor boat, with peeling paint and a crooked anchor. Putt-putting through the stillness of the deep waters, scissoring through a low-mist clinging to the still surface, I’m gently awoken by the crisp breeze. A ribbon of traditional Mayan market towns, including Santiago Atitlán, San Pedro La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna and San Antonio Palopó lines the lake — it would be remiss of me not to stop at each. The lively atmosphere of some market towns is in stark contrast to the peaceful sleepy lanes of others, seemingly untouched by the modern era. Santiago Atitlán has the largest market — part open-air, part indoor — with a menagerie of handicrafts and delectable delicacies.
As I circumnavigate the maelstrom of Maya, along twists and turns, tangible food smells strike the back of my nostrils; from herbs and sweet fruits to frying plantain. Submerged beyond recognition, sprightly handicrafts vie for attention alongside ethnic jewellery, pots and pans, and deeper in, I watch as butchers shoo flies from hanging carcasses of meat. By now, there’s no hint of tourists. In the distance, a distinctive cross strikes out from the mesh of stalls, scouring the skyline. Church is the focal point of every market town. Time stands still and I imagine myself to be transported to another era. Guatemalan market towns hark an overwhelming sense of innocence; a simpler, more loving life.
Eventually heading back to the boat is like stepping out into the “real” world.
For a far more rural affair, I make for the remote and rugged Pacific Coast at Monterrico. The windswept shoreline is barren and undeveloped, and is particularly striking with miles of jet-black volcanic sand. I not only browse scattered fishermen’s huts for the fresh catch of the day, but am also fortunate enough to watch one family catch its own at dusk.
Being a weekday, there isn’t another non-native in sight. For a moment, as I stand with the crashing waves of the Pacific foaming ashore at my feet, I am overwhelmed by a sense of surreal isolation and find myself removed from the woes of the world.
Later, accompanied by a guide, I venture a kilometre inland to a top-secret spot, discovered by the guide himself just three weeks prior. It’s an intricate waterway system where the scene drastically changes. Little sunlight gets in here. It’s silent, humid and mysterious. He tracks down a local fisherman who takes us on his humble wooden boat. Navigating tiny narrow canyons, we’re quickly besieged by dense towering mangroves, so close that their spindly fingers scrape the boat. The pleasure of surrendering entirely to nature is exciting, as the engine switches off and we row through shallow waters. A biodiversity hotspot, glimpses of marabous and iguanas flash past. Totally off the tourist map and even that of most locals, this is a sublime discovery.
Sooner than I would have liked, I continue on with my Guatemalan journey and head for the capital, Guatemala City. “Guate” is a series of shanty towns disguised in every shadow but does have some eclectic urban spots that are known as the hip trendy hangouts. Mercado Central is not to be missed. The concealed entrance is deceptive of the depth of this underground metropolis spread over several floors and I have a fantastic time meeting Guatemalan artisans, giggling with my guide in the maze, salivating at the food court and disappearing into colourful corners.
At this point, it strikes me: For those who take the time to discover the true Mayan tribes, mestizos and ancient markets of Guatemala, Latin America takes on a whole new meaning.